Eight of us met to discuss these two quickly read books. Heartburn had been on our list for a long time, but we added Leaving Mother Lake, because we wanted to discuss another book with a strong woman. Heartburn was fiction based on fact and Leaving Mother Lake was a memoir, "as told to" anthropologist, Christine Mathieu. Christine Mathieu also added her anthropological analysis of Yang Erche Namu's community in Yunan Province. Our discussion leader for Leaving Mother Lake shared very thorough notes, which brought us all up on the major details.
Yang Erche Namu was born in 1966 in a very remote village in the mountains of Yunnan Province, China. Her isolated community developed a "matrilineal" society over hundreds of years. Anthropologist, Christine Mathieu, conjectures that this evolved from a feudal society under past emperors and warlords. Women own the land and live together in a commune-like setting. All children belong to all the women of a household and are raised in common. There is a leader woman for the large household, but the leadership does not necessarily pass to that woman's daughter. The lead woman chooses her successor from among the female children. The children do not necessarily know who their fathers are. Women choose their sex partners and dismiss them by setting a bag of the man's belongings outside of the home. Women have a private room for their sex lives and call their lovers with a light in a window. The men live separately and conduct business with the outside world.
Because the community is small, primitive and very much dependent on each other for survival, each member of the community is very careful to always be kind and to never gossip about others. They actively repress jealousy and envy. Animosity could have dire consequences.
Yang was a colicky baby and so her mother sent her to another household to live. Yang was even sicker there so was returned to her mother. Yang's mother was the leader of the household. It seems that Yang did not bond strongly with her mother or others and we wondered if that was a consequence of the communal living or a trait of Yang's. Yang was sent as an older child to live remotely with an uncle whose son had left the community. The uncle needed a yak herder in the mountains. Life there was very hard for Yang. She was barefoot and freezing in the winters, even to the point of standing in yak urine to keep her feet warm and to sleep next to the yaks for body warmth.
When she reached puberty, there was a “skirt” ceremony where she had to stand naked before all of the community, which included men and women. She felt beautiful during this ritual, where she received a jade bracelet from her mother.
Soon after, she was chosen by the government to join with other excellent singers from rural areas to perform in various Chinese cities. After her experience she was dissatisfied with her life at home.
She was attracted to a boy in the village and decided to have sex with him, but then changed her mind and refused. In her rage over the experience, she destroyed the village school room and ran away to the city to try to attend a music conservatory. She had to sell her jade bracelet to live. Selling the bracelet and destroying the village school room was such bad behavior, she felt it essentially severed her ties to her village.
Once in the metropolitan world she eventually became a star, a singer, a model and a successful actress. Her biography online points out that she is not popular among many Chinese. We noted that some of her behavior seemed arrogant and cruel by our standards. For example, she carried on a courtship by letter with a young man, but when she met him, she told him he was ugly. She seemed surprised that someone who wrote beautifully could possibly not be handsome.
We were impressed at the successes she had, given that she was illiterate and from an essentially primitive culture. While primitive in some ways we thought that the power and freedom some of the women had in it should be adopted for our own culture. We also thought that the communal living of mothers and children, or at least those mothers and children, resulted in relationships which were not as close as those most of us have had with our mothers and children.
The appendix by the anthropologist was scholarly, but fascinating.
We were glad that we had a window into a rare community, that unfortunately has been changed by Yang Erche Namu’s contact with the modern world and the tourism that has resulted from that and other incursions of modernity.
Yang Erche Namu is a rare strong woman who molded her life with the opportunities she found. We thought that few others would have the courage or strength to plunge into such a foreign life.
It is a fascinating story and one well worth checking into, if you have not yet read it, there are several copies in OPL.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron was a different sort of book about a strong woman. We found it to be lighter fare, because of the humor involved. One of the lighter elements was the interjection of recipes by the main character. One of our members brought one of those recipes to our meeting, a delicious peach pie. The secret of the recipe was that it had custard in the mix of ingredients. We LOVED that pie! What a treat!
While based on reality, this was a novel. The reality topic was the disintegration of the marriage of Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame. Their marriage was the second marriage for both of them. We liked the characters very much and felt that they were real people, as they probably are. The father was loopy, writing about alternative universes. The mother was an eccentric outspoken woman with some sage advice. Every character had a therapist to discuss the downs in their lives. In group therapy each tried to outdo the other with a horrible situation. (Does this really happen? I bet it does.)
The only part that felt really made up was the mugging of the main character right before a group therapy session. If that story was contrived, it was important to the plot. It set in motion the quirky and outrageous events that led to the final conclusions.
While humor connected most all events and often made us laugh out loud, there were, in contrast many moments of very real sadness. The main character kept a journal and so must have Nora Ephron, because there would be no way to make up the depth of feeling and amazing details she shared had she not pulled from her reality.
We noted the passage where her therapist asks why she has to put everything in her life into a story. Her answer was that if she made a story of it, then she had some control over it. Perhaps it was a method to manage the pain. We also discussed the ending events when she gave birth to her second child by Carl Bernstein. She tells the doctor, who would do the Cesarean procedure, not to let her about-to-be-divorced husband, who would be there during the procedure, “Do not let this stranger see me eviscerated.” Her memories of the kind and loving moments of the failed marriage filled her with aching sadness. He would sing to her made up lullabies during the good parts of their marriage.
He ended up with the wife of their mutual friend. Nora described this woman as a giraffe and made other viscous and witty comments about this woman. We saw in the Wikipedia biography that Carl Bernstein sued Nora Ephron about this book! Maybe his new wife DID look like a giraffe!
We liked her description of the first husband who seemed to care more for gerbils or hamsters than for people. We thought her humor was viscious, but so entertaining!
We also noted that her tone throughout seemed to be “one note,” that is, the writing style didn’t keep us captivated throughout. There was a rhythm that seemed too repetitive at times. We also felt that some of the choices and constrictions on the main character’s life were dated, but this book is not a recent book and so much has changed for women since it was published.
Some of us were surprised that at the end of this marriage and novel; she immediately moved in with another man. According to her biography online, that marriage seemed to have stayed solid. Nora Ephron's last marriage was to writer Nicholas Pileggi.
Nora Ephron is definitely a strong woman with a great deal of success. She has won many awards and written the screenplays for many unforgettable movies, such as Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle, and Julie and Julia.
She was a playwright as well as a screenwriter and author of books of essays and fiction. She was also a journalist. She died in 2012 of pneumonia brought on by myeloid leukemia. It may be a long time before we see another such intelligent talent with such an original voice.
Lakeview Library Branch Manager